Wise up, it’s a simple human equation by Devadas Krishnadas
Total global carbon emissions can only increase as the planetary population grows and a greater share of this mass of people become urbanised.
The United Nations Population Division projects that global urbanisation, at 50 per cent today, will reach 70 per cent by mid-century.
(Picture: The Maldives may be uninhabitable by mid-century due to rising sea levels.)
So there are a few immutable facts to this story.
One, climate change is real. Two, climate change is accelerating. Three, one of the key contributing factors to climate change, namely carbon emissions, will increase with population growth and urbanisation rates. Four, climate change is a planetary-system-wide phenomenon. And five, we do not have a planetary-system-wide response. Consequently, we, as a planet, are on a collision course with a very bad scenario.
Why are we continuing on this path if its outcome is self-evident? It seems to be that there are five major conceptual roadblocks to progress.
First is the false and futile debate over the veracity of climate change. The evidence that the climate is changing is irrefutable.
Thus the debate centres on whether climate change is man-induced or natural. This is somewhat akin to deciding if the train rushing towards one has a malicious driver at the helm or is a runaway engine. Either way, one is going to get run over.
Even those who believe that climate change is natural acknowledge that Man’s activities do contribute partly to the phenomenon.
Thus, the logic should be that since climate change is a threat and we cannot do anything to mitigate the natural part of it, we should focus on what we can do something about – Man’s activities.
Second, climate change is systemic on a planetary scale. It can be difficult for most people to grasp change on such a scale when it is challenging enough to cope with change on a human scale. Nonetheless, if there is one thing all peoples should be able to agree upon, it should be the thing that represents an existential threat to us all. If only it were so easy.
Third, even while climate change is accelerating when measured in geographic time, it is still happening slowly in human time. In other words, most people do not feel the effects of climate change within their lifetime viscerally enough to take action.
Of course there are those that do – in Greenland, for instance, the agricultural season has extended by three weeks over the past half century, while the Maldives will potentially be uninhabitable by mid-century due to rising sea levels.
GROWTH VS CLIMATE?
Fourth, the mental model held by political leaders and policymakers is that economic growth and climate sensitivity are at worst mutually exclusive and at best sequential.
Particularly in the case of developing economies, where the remnants of the world’s forested areas, unspoiled continental rivers and ground based minerals are located, there is tragedy of present extraction for local economic growth prioritised over the future consequences on global climate health.
Fifth, the model of consumption-driven economic behaviour that has prevailed since the Industrial Revolution has meant that economic progress is negatively correlated with climate health. This is due to the extraction of natural resources, the negative externalities of industrial production and power generation and wastefulness of urban societies all in service of the limitless consumerism of the aspiring urbanite.
PRIORITISE FOR GLOBAL ACTION
What can be done? Conceptual roadblocks must be undone with conceptual levers, scale of challenge matched with scale of response.
First, the need for climate sensitivity should be acknowledged at the planetary level. The United Nations should prioritise the issue, seek the commitment of states and coordinate the actions of international agencies to bring into focus both global attention and resources.
As it has done with human rights, peacemaking and disaster relief, the UN needs to put climate sensitivity on the agenda for global action.
Second, with the future global population increasingly concentrated in cities, there is a need to ensure that urbanisation is climate sensitive.
C40 – an organisation currently chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and championed by former US President Bill Clinton, which brings together Mayors of major cities – is doing outstanding work in this direction. In 2012, Singapore signed on as an observer city.
We can do more.
We have set managing better with urban intensification as one of our National Innovation goals. We can build on this commitment to look at climate-sensitive measures for dense urbanities such as ours. In the same way that we have become leaders in water conservation, we can and should – as the most advanced city in our region – be leaders in urban climate sensitivity.
RATE THEIR PERFORMANCE
Third, there must be a concerted effort by the private sector, policymakers and thought leaders to find practical ways to make economic growth and climate sensitivity mutually inclusive and concurrent.
This is not an impossible goal, merely hitherto a neglected one. The human mind, particularly when motivated by sufficient passion, can accomplish anything it sets to – that much our history has proven. Emergent economy leaders should not fold their hands and wait for solutions but actively join the process of discovery of this new path of development.
Fourth, rather than try to rely exclusively on bottom-up measures and moral suasion, much wider and entrenched progress can be made if existing frameworks of discipline on state behaviour can factor in performance on climate sensitivity.
Mr Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Office together with Ms Susan Burns of the Global Footprint Network, have argued for sovereign risk ratings to take into consideration state performance on climate sensitivity.
This would be a powerful way to normalise the need to be climate-sensitive as nothing concentrates the minds of the political leader, policymaker and private market actor as much as cost of capital and reputational risk.
THE ULTIMATE PRAGMATIST
Fifth, President of Uruguay Jose Mujira has passionately and eloquently argued for a rethink of the consumption-driven model of economic progress. Many have riposted that he is being idealistic and not practical.
In fact, when we consider the certainty of climate change motored by the externalities of such an economic model, we should treat him as the ultimate pragmatist for looking facts in the face and calling its name loudly.
Climate change is a collective phenomenon. It must be met by an acknowledgement of collective responsibility. No one and no place will be excluded from the experience of climate change. Equally then, dealing with it is an obligation from which no one and no place should be excluded.
Our future depends on the fulfilment of this human equation so absurdly simple and self-evident, which will call upon each of us to find the moral mettle to force ourselves, our governments and our private corporations to prioritise future benefits over present gains.
Devadas Krishnadas is Director of Future-Moves, a foresight consultancy based in Singapore. He is a Fulbright Scholar.